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2015 Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview


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2015 Atlanta Falcons training camp preview
Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer

The Atlanta Falcons open training camp on July 31 at the Falcons' headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Here's a closer look at the Falcons camp, which wraps up on Aug. 19:

Top storyline: The biggest news going into camp won't be settled on the field. The contract situation of star receiver Julio Jones is certain to grab the headlines. Jones has one year left on his deal and is scheduled to make $10.176 million in 2015. He just saw two other top receivers, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, sign five-year, $70 million deals with more than $40 million guaranteed. Although owner Arthur Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and coach Dan Quinn all have expressed a desire to keep Jones for years to come, no negotiations occurred while Jones participated in the offseason program. The general feeling around the organization is that Jones will be signed to a lucrative, long-term deal before the start of training camp -- if Blank is comfortable with the price, of course. In the past two years, the Falcons signed franchise quarterback Matt Ryan and veteran wide receiver Roddy White to extensions right at the beginning of camp. We'll see if they follow suit with their best player and most explosive offensive threat.

Position battles to watch: The top battle to keep an eye on is the one between second-year running back Devonta Freeman and rookie third-round pick Tevin Coleman. Both players performed well during the offseason, and Freeman really caught Quinn's eye with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Coleman had a minor setback at the end of minicamp with a mild groin strain, but he's pretty confident in his ability to earn the starting job. The battle between Leonard Hankerson and White at receiver could emerge as the most intriguing and talked about of them all. The coaches really love what Hankerson brings to the offense, but White is viewed as the natural starter. If anything, Hankerson's emergence should serve as motivation for White, a guy who has earned the respect of his teammates and opponents over 10 NFL seasons. Folks are accustomed to seeing White as Ryan's second option at wide receiver behind Jones. Three-receiver sets could include Jones, White, and Hankerson. Another clash worth watching will be between third-year cornerback Robert Alford and rookie second-round pick Jalen Collins. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound Collins has the size and length Quinn desires outside in press coverage. However, Alford (5-10, 186) had an outstanding offseason -- particularly competing against one of the league's best big receivers in Jones -- and proved himself worthy of remaining outside opposite Desmond Trufant rather than being kicked inside as a nickelback. And finally, we'll see if converted cornerback Ricardo Allen holds down the starting free safety spot he appeared to earn during the offseason or if Kemal Ishmael or Charles Godfrey challenges to line up next to strong safety William Moore.

Veterans to watch: We mentioned White above. He turns 34 in November and knows his body isn't going to hold up like it used to. In fact, his left knee continues to ail him and might lead to some days off during camp, although Quinn wouldn't immediately reveal plans to lighten White's workload. White is eager to show folks he's still got something left in the tank. Defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai both need to show they were worth the hefty investment ($25 million guaranteed combined) that the Falcons made in them prior to the 2013 season. Although Jackson receives the most scrutiny, Soliai has struggled to adjust to the new defense and really could have a minimal role. Newcomers O'Brien Schofield, Adrian Clayborn, Tony Moeaki and Hankerson all signed one year "prove-it" deals coming off injuries, which should serve as added motivation as they attempt to make positive impacts. Linebacker Justin Durant, another newcomer, could emerge as a defensive leader, provided he remains healthy.

Rookies to watch: All eyes will be on first-round pick Vic Beasley, a player the Falcons are counting on to immediately revive their pass rush. Beasley already announced his goal to reach double-digit sacks in his first season, which seems attainable based on his tremendous speed and athleticism. Beasley views himself as an every-down player, but the Falcons won't ask him to be such as he settles into the Leo pass-rusher role. He needs to concentrate on his strength, which is pressuring the quarterback. Defending the run will come, in time. Also keep an eye on fourth-round pick Justin Hardy, the receiver from East Carolina. He's an ideal slot receiver and a guy capable of establishing separation with his precise route-running. Hardy immediately impressed Ryan, who said Hardy will play a key role in the offense's success. Of course, Collins and Coleman should have immediate impacts as well, while fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett has the motor to crack the defensive line rotation.

Bubble watch: The veteran defensive lineman Jackson, who was the third overall pick in the 2009 draft by Kansas City, hasn't had the type of NFL career most anticipated. Now Jackson finds himself in a position where he needs to experience a revival. He's focused on dropping weight to play defensive end in the new scheme, but Jackson also needs to concentrate on making plays rather than just eating up blocks. Will the Falcons cut him? Well, Quinn said there's a role for a big spacer-eater such as Jackson in this defense. But if Jackson can't fulfill that role, you wonder if the team will go ahead and cut ties despite the $6.4 million in "dead money" tied to Jackson. His release would free up $2.25 million against the cap. Other bubble players include tackle Lamar Holmes, who hasn't impressed the new coaching staff and then suffered a broken foot during minicamp, as well as center/guard Peter Konz, and outside linebacker Stansly Maponga -- three draft picks under Dimitroff. Konz could save himself with his ability to play both guard and center. Tight end Levine Toilolo, a fourth-round pick of Dimitroff's, is likely to fall behind both Jacob Tamme and Moeaki at the position, but the 6-foot-8 Toilolo should at least stick as a red zone target. Linebacker Joplo Bartu, a starter the last two seasons, is on the outside looking in because he lacks special teams value. Not to mention Bartu is coming off a $50,000 fine from the NFL for an alcohol-related arrest.

On the line: There is plenty of uncertainty about how the offensive line will hold up or even come together, for that matter. First and foremost, left tackle Jake Matthews (Lisfranc) and center Joe Hawley (ACL/MCL) have to return fully healthy off their respective surgeries. Right guard Jon Asamoah has to show he can get out and run in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme, and right tackle Ryan Schraeder has to show he's capable of maintaining a starting role. Veteran newcomer Chris Chester should settle in as the starting left guard if Asamoah pans out on the right side. And with the way injuries crippled the line last season, guys such as James Stone, Mike Person and even Tyler Polumbus have to show they can be reliable backups, something Polumbus was unable to display upon joining the team this offseason. The most pressure of the entire offensive line will be on Matthews, who has to shake off his inconsistent rookie showing that was marred by injury.

For daily updates at camp, check out the Atlanta Falcons clubhouse page.

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Very interested in White/Hankerson/Hardy. They probably need to just move Roddy to the slot. He already was moved in motion a lot last year anyways to get a free release. And he knows how to run routes and find soft spots in zone coverage. I would prefer Hankerson play more on the outside with Hardy coming in and playing some slot as well.

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McClure seems to think a lot of players had bad minicamps when nobody else has said so. Kind of weird.

Interesting how many writers are talking up the Hankerson-Roddy camp fight though. Hankerson must be really impressing.

I certainly think that Vaughn McClure has more contacts within the Falcons organization than almost anyone else. Although I don't believe everything he writes about the Falcons is pure gospel, I do believe that what he writes has at least some basis in truth. Therefore, I do not ignore or disregard or dismiss what he says either.

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